The 2B Market: Part 3


In part 2 of this series I alluded to the fact that there was one last trade target I’ve been secretly hoping the Jays go for. Since that time I’ve started having second thoughts. In all honesty, the player I’d like to present is a high risk high reward type of play. The ceiling is as high as the floor is low.

I should stop pretending this is some kind of “guess who” game, because you all saw the picture already. I’m talking about none other than Rickie Weeks. Weeks is available as a trade target for two reasons. The first is that he’s been downright awful the past two seasons, despite being relatively durable in them by his standards. The second reason is the rise of Scooter Gennett, who right now has the starting job from the Brewers in 2014.

But the reason Weeks is a buy low candidate is that he hasn’t always been awful. In fact, the only thing that kept him from being a 3+ WAR player for every year from 2007-2011, a span of 5 straight seasons, was health. If you pro-rate his numbers over a full season’s worth of playing time he’d be worth at least 3.0 WAR each of those seasons, and getting up as high as over 5.0 WAR in a couple of them as well. Just that alone is enough to see his tremendous upside.

Weeks accomplished those high WAR totals through a combination of excellent hitting (by 2B standards) and solid defense. His defense, by our advanced metrics, came out a bit better than average during that 5 year stretch, as did his baserunning, while his wOBA was well above the .350 mark, which is really elite for a 2B. When healthy he was likely a top 5 2B in all of baseball.

But then 2012-2013 came. He provided a grand total of 0.7 WAR in those two years, combined. All facets of his game fell apart. The metrics rated him horribly on defense, and he fell well below average offensively for the first time in a long time. So the question with Weeks is pretty obvious. Can we see 2012-2013 as outliers with the 2007-2011 Weeks being closer to his true talent level, or is 2012-2013 his new baseline?

Of course, if I had a clear answer to this question some front office would probably be paying me a lot of money right now. The truth is, as it always is with these situations, that Weeks’ true talent likely lies somewhere in between these two extremes. But since they’re so far apart, it really does pay to investigate which extreme we think he’ll be closer to in 2014. Let’s look at some arguments for both sides.

On the positive side, 2012-2013 can be chalked up to bad luck for Weeks, in some ways. He actually started off 2012 injured, and played horrible baseball for the first half of the season. At some point he woke up and remembered who he was (or, you know, got healthy), and put up second-half numbers that were completely in line with the 2007-2011 Weeks. In the second half of 2012 his wRC+ was 117 and wOBA was .348. His batted ball numbers (line drive to ground ball to fly ball ratios and HR/FB%) were all in line with his career averages.

Heading into 2013 it seemed pretty obvious to me. Weeks was a sleeper. His 2012 was marred by a first half injury, and he was back to his old self in the second half. Coming into 2013 as a healthy guy, I was expecting another great offensive season out of Weeks. I waited, but it never came. Eventually he lost his starting job, and then he got injured and missed the end of the season. So while 2012 can be seen as recovery from injury and then a return to greatness, 2013 is harder to see in that light.

That being said, if you look at Weeks’ more advanced metrics on offense, they aren’t that much different than his career numbers, especially if you focus on his 1st half numbers (he only played 19 games in the 2nd half, and they may have been marred by the injury that eventually became season-ending). His BB% and K% stayed within range of his career norms (though he struck out a bit more than usual- a career high 26%). He hit as many line drives as usual (18%), limited popups more than he usually does (7.5%), and traded some fly balls for ground balls. That trade is usually bad for power hitters, though it should theoretically result in a higher BABIP with less HRs. For Weeks, his BABIP fell to a career low .268 when his career average is .302. Given the low FB% and popup rate, this low BABIP smells a bit of bad luck.

His power drop (ISO down to .140- career .175) may also not have been so real. ISO becomes stable (i.e. we consider it a legit value rather than small sample size) at about 550 plate appearances, a number Weeks didn’t reach in 2013. If you look at his average fly ball distance, which becomes stable at a smaller sample size, Weeks’ is 291 ft, actually above his number of 288 ft from 2011-2012. His HR/FB%, if you just look at the first half of 2013, remained 15%, in line with his career average. To me, this implies he didn’t actually lose any power. When he hit the ball in the air, he hit is as hard and as far as he normally does. The drop in ISO is likely due to the fact that he exchanged some fly balls for more grounders. In other words, if Weeks just starts hitting fly balls again, he could return to his previous levels of power numbers.

Even his high K% may not be all that worrisome. Weeks always struck out a lot, and nothing about his plate discipline numbers screams of a legitimate loss of ability to make contact. His contact% is in line with his career average, as is his SwStr%. He didn’t chase more pitches out of the zone than normal (though he had a bit more trouble making contact with them when he did). The only real change is an increase in F-Strike%, meaning he was falling behind in counts more often than normal. I guess that small change is enough to explain a slight increase in K%. But the point is, that’s really all this was, an increase from 24% to 26% in K% isn’t all that significant, and there’s nothing really indicating a real decline from his more advanced numbers.

It is for this reason that throughout the first half of 2013, while many were panicking about Weeks’ slow start, most people who focus more on advanced stats than traditional ones remained pretty confident that Weeks would at some point break out of his slump. There was just too much pointing to the argument that he was still the same hitter he always was, just going through a stretch of bad luck.

The defense is harder to explain. But the truth is our understanding of the defensive metrics right now lags well behind our understanding of the offensive ones. I can’t say his horrible ratings in defense in 2012-2013 weren’t real, or were bad luck, but I can say it seems unlikely that at age 30 someone would go from being an above average defender to being such a horrible one so quickly. I’d like to think there’s a chance he could at least get back closer to average defense.

And now for the downside. We can start with age. Weeks is getting older. He’s now on the wrong side of 30. Starting with the defense, it’s certainly possible that he’s lost some quickness with age, and his defense really did just get a lot worse. It’s hard to argue with the numbers, sometimes.

Offensively, although I’ve just argued that Weeks could be a prime bounceback candidate, the argument the other way was made quite well by Chris Cwik of Fangraphs. He wrote that Weeks actually had a pretty amazing decline in his ability to hit fastballs in 2013. While the FB was usually Weeks’ favourite pitch to hit throughout his career, he suddenly lost the ability to hit them in 2013 (-5.2 pitch value). Cwik attributes this to a possible loss in bat speed, certainly something that can come with age. If this is the case, really there shouldn’t be much optimism for Weeks to turn things around in 2014. Furthermore, pitch values should become relevant in smaller sample sizes than other numbers, since they are counted on a pitch by pitch basis rather than by the at-bat.

So as you can see, there is reason to believe that Weeks can return to being a 3 WAR player (I think his superstar days are probably behind him), and there is also reason to believe that Weeks will continue to be a replacement level player. After all this though, my opinion is that he can still return to being an above average hitter. There are a lot of stats pointing to the argument that Weeks had a lot of bad luck in 2013 and can return to form, and really just that one stat (FB pitch value) pointing the other way. And while people do lose bat speed as they age, I have a hard time believing that Weeks’ bat speed could just fall off a cliff so dramatically like that at the age of 31. I mean, 31 really isn’t all that old.

I don’t think he’ll reach his 2007-2011 glory years, but I do think he can continue on the more reasonable slow decline path that can be made out if you look at the second half of 2012 more than its first half. The .348 wOBA and 117 wRC+ are down from 2011, so perhaps something like a .340 wOBA and 110 wRC+ would’ve been reasonable for 2013, and something a bit lower than that in 2014. If he remains an average baserunner and regresses back closer to average defense (the turf at Rogers Center likely makes him a bit worse than he’d be elsewhere), that’s still a 2-3 WAR player for 2014.

And as someone who’s #2 on the depth chart at 2B now in Milwaukee, and after the last two seasons, I can’t imagine him costing that much. I’d imagine if somebody would take on the $11M he’s owed, they could have him for next to nothing. What I think would be more palatable to the Jays and their tight budget would be to pay $5-6M of that, and give something of value in return to the Brewers.

What that piece going the other way would have to be is unclear. Milwaukee is kinda in this weird in between stage where they aren’t really rebuilding, but they aren’t really in position to compete right now either. Still, I’d like to think a mid-level prospect could get this done if the Jays paid more than half the salary. Or maybe some of the back-end rotation depth that the Jays have would be of interest to the Brewers. They certainly can use any starting pitching they can get.

A low cost of acquisition and a pretty high upside that seems within reach are the reasons Weeks is my favourite trade option for the Jays. But the looming floor of 2012-2013 are reasons for pause. There doesn’t seem to be much going on in terms of trade dialogue for either the Jays or the Brewers, so I don’t see anything happening anytime soon, if at all. Maybe there’s a reason for that. I like Weeks a lot, but trading for him is a move that could really backfire.

Plus, even the 2-3 WAR season from him we’d be thrilled to have is what the Jays could’ve gotten out of Omar Infante for similar money without having to give up anything in terms of players/prospects. This makes me even more baffled as to where the Jays were on Infante. Still, Weeks remains one of the few intriguing options left in a shrinking 2B market.